Preaching in Harmonics

Mike and I both tend to be too intellectual in our sermons.  Yesterday we had an experience that shows why this can be a problem:

Mike is learning guitar.  Since I’ve played for a while, there have been a couple times when I’ve showed him new things on the guitar.  While showing Mike chords yesterday, I decided to switch and show him harmonics.  He had not asked any questions which would have brought up the subject.  As a beginner (though quickly learning) guitarist, he’s not at a point where harmonics are likely to be used in any songs he’s learning.  But I think harmonics are cool, so I wanted to show him harmonics. I’ve been playing guitar for fourteen years.  Mike has been playing for a few weeks.  I’m fascinated by things like harmonics.  Mike isn’t.  He wanted to learn how to move more quickly from a G chord to a C chord.

How often do preachers do exactly the same thing?  We get really excited about showing our congregation harmonics – whatever historical or linguistic or theological nuggets of information capture our attention –  when all the while the people present are more concerned with moving from one chord to another.

Part of the problem is pride.  We toss in “In the Greek it says . . .”, when we really could convey the same point without boasting of our education.  It’s not that we shouldn’t teach things of substance – we certainly should.  We just have to teach in a way that communicates to the people listening.  The Upper Room is an intelligent congregation, but most folks there could care less whether my sermons have footnotes.  More mild than boasting but equally prideful, we can also easily choose the self-centered topics.  As I showed Mike harmonics because I like them, so also I’m sure I’ve preached on some issues because I felt like it, not because it was appropriate for where the congregation was at that point. 

Another issue is seminary education: Removed from the non-Christian world, students get used to pleasing professors who are often more concerned with the finer points of theology or language than communication to a non-seminary (or non-Christian) audience.  The product is preachers who can expound on Greek and footnote the theologians they’re referencing, but have little skill in connecting to the everyday world of their congregations.  I’ve played guitar for fourteen years. But that doesn’t mean I should have showed Mike something I learned a few years into playing guitar when he’s a few weeks into it. 

So there’s the diagnosis.  But what’s the remedy?  Perhaps an accurate assessment of the congregation’s level of discipleship is a good place to start.  Are you preaching to longtime Christians or people new to faith?  Is their discipleship deep or shallow?  More importantly, though, the basic skills of communication have to be built.  I’m starting to read more fiction and poetry, as well as more non-churchy non-fiction, so that I get used to communicating more through story and image.  What other options might there be?

  1. Jacob said:

    I agree that we have to reach people where they are, but I think the danger is that we move too far in an anti-intellectual direction for our own good. As you noted, we could make a point about the Greek text without actually saying that. On the other hand, I don’t think saying “the Greek text says” points to the speaker’s education – I think it does offer a teachable moment. The fact that the New Testament is written in Greek is reflective of the influence that Greek culture had on the ancient world, which is something people need to know in order to understand scripture. That’s one specific example, but I think it makes a broader point – the things that we learn in seminary are not knowledge reserved only for pastors or theologians but are for everyone. Part of the reason for having a seminary (theological) education is to better understand what we’re teaching. Of course, we’ll always be teaching people at different levels of understanding, so I think you’re right that we need to assess where people are in learning (and in faith), but we must be careful not to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.

  2. mikegehrling said:

    I strongly disagree with this post, Chris.

    1.) I’m not learning guitar quickly.

    2.) I am fascinated by harmonics. (Although not in a “how can I use this in a song” way as much as in a “why in the heck are the strings making a different sound” sort of way.)


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